Zulu love letter to local cinema

It is inevitable that a process as contested as the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) hearings would result in a spate of books and movies, mostly conceptualised within parametres of rainbow nation miracle fabulae. Antjie Krog’s Country of my Skull is the most famous example of this genre, which sees the coming together of victims with their torturers. The TRC in setting the truth free, liberates victims and perpetrators, goes the logic.
The book and movie of the book of Gillian Slovo’s Red Dust is also in this vein.

What has not been told to date is a story that does not privilege national black and white reconciliation. Ramadan Suleman’s Zulu Love Letter, which plays itself out within intimate and domestic spaces, offers a narrative missing from our TRC tales: how the family splintered by the destruction of apartheid violence might be re-united. It deals with splintered relationships and the need for healing and closure of the rifts between struggle activists and their families. Thandeka Khumalo (Pamela Nomvete) plays a neglectful mother with a drink problem not made easier by the recurring memory she experiences of witnessing the murder of a young girl, Dineo Tau. “Why do you try to change the world, you can’t change our family situation,” Mangi says to her mother at one point.

The movie shifts us between two similar worlds, the exact era identified though Weekly Mail and later Mail & Guardian billboards. The first is a state-of-emergency apartheid world. Here, we witness not only black resistance to white oppression but must grapple with the factor of black sell-outs. In the trickier post-apartheid world, there are apparently more black people in positions of power. But this is cosmetic, we discover. The economic relations are the same. Cops who previously pounced on black people for passes now arbitrarily grab suspected ‘foreigners’. People live in matchboxes, they go missing, there are lots of funerals. In the words of Dineo’s sister Mapul, people live in houses “with a permanent wake”.

What makes Zulu Love Letter engrossing is that it does not stereotype blacks and whites. We do not have blundering white cops barely able to speak a coherent sentence. Instead, there is a trio of white and black cops—Moolman (Ian Roberts), Green (David Butler) and Dhlamini (Samson Khumalo) who fluently cite and listen to poetry while they figure out how to avoid comeuppance for their past actions.

And Pamela Nomvete’s black protagonist Thandeka Khumalo is an unlikely heroine with none of the wussy liberal sensibilities we have seen in other movies from this genre. She is a tough-talking journalist with a drinking problem and a quick tongue. From the BC era, Thandeka has more time for a rasta hobo with a shot memory on the streets (he is the brother of a photographer friend she had) than for the slick black empowerment tokens she sees in her workplace.) She berates her editor (‘The Frog’), as he gives her her marching orders, for filling the newsroom with youngsters “who think that being black is a job description and the struggle is a cellular network they should subscribe to”-one of the lines from Bhekizizwe Peterson’s sharp script.

Thandeka has a deaf daughter Mangi (Mpumi Malatsi, deaf in ‘real life’, who makes her acting debut in this role) with whom she can barely communicate because she insists on talking to her in English. Mangi’s stepfather Essop Moola (Kurt Engelhof) and Thandeka’s parents, do use sign language with the girl. In the course of this movie one sees Thandeka accepting that the only way she will ever understand the world her daughter occupies is to learn to sign.

Outside of making a tough statement about South Africa’s language issues (and all the people who do not have ‘a voice’ in the society, including Thandeka, Mangi and Me’Tau), this film breaks new ground in creating in representation a language for a character who is both black and deaf. The sounds Mangi makes are unsettling for unattuned ears, the thoughts she has utterly terrifying because they exist beyond the boundaries of safety we as viewers navigate for ourselves through ‘the known’ world of the other characters. The alienation of Mangi’s world is also realized in the way sound is used - there is a sparse use of music and a reliance on silence and natural sounds, some of it distorted to accentuate the tensions between the ‘hearing’ and the ‘deaf’ world.

Mangi can communicate with the ancestors, fly off the edges of buildings, travel into spaces sealed and closed by time and spot the threat stalking her mother within a dream sequence of a wedding celebration. From the snippets of evidence she sees and reads, she is accurately able to predict outcomes. Her ‘magical’ qualities are intertwined and told in tandem with the representation of her anxieties. Each ‘interlude’ is precipitated by tension and suggests the increasing nearness of danger and death.

Of course, part of Mangi’s anxiety comes from the sense that her mother is deeply disturbed.

The traumatic memory that recurs for Thandeka tires her, fills her head with images but stops her being able to work. She takes sleeping pills and “sometimes I swear they kick in in the middle of the day”. She sees “faces from the past, familiar things, they all seem to be mocking me”. She remembers the floor of tiny jail cell she was in for more than five months in solitary, she remembers the walls. It takes her own little girl Mangi and Me’ Tau, Dineo Tau’s mother, to make the links for her to the terror and what she has witnessed and the experience of the death of her own youth. Dineo is the restless spirit of memory, not able to settle until her bones have been laid to rest and the cleansing begun. “Return home to the place where you were born” are the words used in the cleansing ceremony. Mangi, on the other hand, is the soul who will lead Thandeka home.

Beyond the issues of language, missing people, unsettled souls and traumatic memory that recur in African Literature, the film also contains much from tradition that is inspirational.

The girl Mangi creates a memory cloth from photographs, a letter, shells, beads and drinking straws in anticipation of the death she expects. This references the practice of making memory boxes and cloths to create continuity between the past and the present for those who are living with Aids and suggests that ordinary people do have the capacity to change their lives, to heal, in whatever limited sense. Of all the characters, Mangi alone gives a sense of the supernatural in her ability to turn on taps and fly-it is as if she has the powers of a superhero or a Neo or a Jesus and is clearly someone who will accept sacrifice if it means the message of life will thus be conveyed to those who remain. The power of healing otherwise lies in the strong bonds between the women who demonstrate the importance to communities of activities like the cleansing ceremony. Despite the poverty they live in, these women are never victims. They have agency and profound cultural resources and rituals that can speak to the complexities of unsettled psyches, grief and mourning.

Culture as resource is sampled throughout the film. The grandmother (played by Sophie Mngina) sings a song about Jackal and Crow; the trees sigh “Where does the breeze begin to blow, my sister, I don’t know” recalling Serote and other black poets who used the metaphor of the breeze to refer to freedom, the crowd outside the TRC sings Senzenina (what have we done?) a freedom song popularised in the anti-pass campaign of the 1950s.

Yet the movie also shows that culture-despite being “a weapon of the people”-serves different purposes for different audiences. The cops cite WB Yeats’ Things Fall Apart (simultaneously referencing Chinua Achebe’s African classic) while the black cop Dhlamini listens to the love poem from the Bible, Song of Solomon, as he watches the house lived in by the mother and sister of the young girl he helped murder in cold blood.

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